Tangled Bodies and Blown Minds, Complete With the Cockettes


Hibiscus, a member of the Cockettes, in “Luminous Procuress.”

Courtesy BAMPFA

For its male and female nudity and gender-bending sexual attitude, Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” first shown in 1963, was the most scandalous American avant-garde movie of its time. It may also have been the most influential, at least among Smith’s fellow underground filmmakers.

Steven Arnold’s “Luminous Procuress” (1971) is among the Smith film’s most flamboyant offspring.

The movie, restored and screening in a new 16-millimeter print Sunday and Monday at Anthology Film Archives, is a 75-minute immersion in Mr. Arnold’s self-consciously decadent worldview — a blend of art nouveau stylization, occult rituals, Hollywood camp and rampant orientalism. Like the poster artist Victor Moscoso and the multimedia group USCO, Mr. Arnold, who during the late 1960s designed handbills for rock bands and programmed midnight shows at an old San Francisco movie-house, was an exponent of hippie modernism.

His magical mystery tour is set in a bordello not unlike the Magic Theater in the Hermann Hesse novel “Steppenwolf.” A winsome pair of longhaired lads are guided through a series of esoteric mysteries by the androgynous madam, Mr. Arnold’s high school friend and frequent star, Pandora. Her establishment is populated by a collection of depraved-looking baby dolls, costumed love goddesses, Egyptian mummies, men with deep red lipstick and glitter-encrusted beards (members of the Cockettes, an anarchic troupe of acid-head drag queens), and mainly lots of entangled naked bodies.

A trippy score by the electronic music composer Warner Jepson largely obliterates the sparse dialogue, which may have been versions of “oh, wow” and “far out,” and, in any case, is usually heard backward. Everyone plays peekaboo through the veils and beaded curtains of the heavily dressed set. Pandora often stares deeply into the camera as if to hypnotize the spectator.

“Luminous Procuress,” which had its premiere at the 1971 San Francisco Film Festival and was given a run at the Whitney Museum in 1972, was something of an underground extravaganza. The movie is as remarkable for its mise-en-scène as for its druggie, orgiastic content. Where “Flaming Creatures” — an alternately frenzied and languorous home-movie of a transsexual bacchanal — was…

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